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Plan commission revisits wind turbine controversy -- of a sort

September 27, 2013

Those who thought they'd heard the last of the words "controversy" and "wind turbine" in the same sentence in Culver, Indiana, may have been surprised at what they heard at last Tuesday's Culver plan commission meeting.

To be fair, however, the discussion was congenial and exploratory on all sides, and the issue at hand was not the hotly debated commercial wind turbines banned earlier this year throughout the entire county, but personal Wind Energy Conversion Systems (or WECS). Specifically, the commission debated how -- or if -- to regulate the use of such devices within the corporate limits of Culver and within the wider zoning boundary under the commission's purview.

A number of area residents previously involved in the commercial wind farm debates of the past few years were on hand Tuesday, many to discuss concerns they had in light of their own past research on the devices.

Culver building commissioner Russ Mason, who did considerable research on standards for the turbines, read several proposed changes to Culver's existent ordinance, including limiting the noise level of each turbine to 40 decibels. Under the proposed changes there would also be a maximum of one WECS for a parcel up to five acres. On property less than an acre, a wind tower would have to be at least 180 feet away from the property line, and towers would be limited to 100 feet in height, plus a 20 foot blade, allowing for a total of 120 feet with blade.

One additional tower would be allowed, said Mason, for each additional five acres of land.

Additionally, the shadow flicker from the rotating blades could not fall on a neighbor's property unless the property owner has agreed in writing to allow for it.

Even with the minimum requirements he proposed, Mason said anyone desiring to erect a WECS tower would have to have a special permit after meeting with the Board of Zoning Appeals and presenting their case for verification of setbacks, height, and the like.
In reply to an audience question, Mason explained WECS towers are allowed currently in areas zoned as S1 (or suburban 1), under special use in other areas, but not permitted at all in the park of L1 (lake 1) areas.

The question was raised and debated whether the towers should be allowed within the corporate limits of the town at all.

Commission member Bill Harris suggested flickering would likely come into play anywhere in the actual town of Culver.

"If one of those goes within corporate city limits, you'll have a lot of controversy," said audience member Hank Bilsland, though commission member Barry McManaway noted, "There's a lot of difference between 20 foot and 100 foot blades," referencing the vast differentiation between huge commercial turbines and smaller non-commercial ones.

Audience member Kevin Berger raised the concern that the town "very carefully crafted" an A1 (or agricultural 1) district recently in order to allow Culver to expand its territorial boundaries while allowing properties designated as A1 to retain the same zoning requirements as A1 properties in Marshall County.

"Now we're arguing for restrictions that could give ammunition to anyone who might protest being brought in (to a future expansion of Culver's territorial boundaries). If we put the restriction on at this point and go talk to those people about wanting them to come in, we're giving them ammo. Why put additional restrictions on ag?"

Mason read Marshall County's WECS standards to the commission and audience, noting the county allows a total tower height of 140 feet, with blades restricted to 40 feet, and a 50 kilowatt power maximum, making height the only difference between the county's, and Culver's proposed regulations.

Berger also pointed out the discussion thus far had focused on maximums, but failed to address very small devices -- such as weather stations -- not intended to be regulated, due to the imprecision of its language.

Commission member Pete Peterson suggested limiting WECS units by voltage, which could exclude small weather stations and the like.
Bilsland noted WECS towers are completely banned on the lake, and suggested "the city ought to comply somewhat with what everybody has to comply with."

McManaway suggested careful attention to detail in crafting any legislation on the matter.

"If there are too many loopholes one way or the other -- we got caught on those storage buildings south of town (which became a court battle). When it was a legal battle, the only thing we had to fight on was what was black and white in the ordinance. That left enough ambiguity to allow that person to do what was not allowed. If it's a WECS and it's in black and white and not more definitive, any court of law will go by what it is. "

Commission member Wayne Bean questioned the debate itself.

"When this started, everybody was worried about wind farms for commercial use. I think this (current proposed ordinance) meets criteria where people aren't going to have two-headed babies! Now we're arguing over the nit-picking, little things about it."

It was noted, in response to an audience query, that no requests have been made, to date, to erect WECS towers in Culver. Instead, said Ralph Winters of the commission, "We're wanting to be proactive. When you change the rules after the request, then you're really sticking your neck out.

Audience member Bob Kreuzberger suggested restricting WECS towers to at least one-half mile from L1 or residential districts, an idea which met with positive reactions from many both on the commission and in the audience.

In the end, the plan commission voted in favor of Mason's recommendations to limit WCES units to a maximum of 50 kilowatts of power (with anything under one-half kilowatt being acceptable). Also approved was his suggestion to match the county's standards of 140 feet (including blades) maximum height for the turbines, though Bean voted against the measure.

It was noted WECS towers are still classified as "special use" (or require special permission from the BZA), and are disallowed in the park and L1 zoning areas.

Winters' motion to table the matter of banning or allowing the devices within Culver's corporate limits was also voted favorably, despite some apparent frustration from some in the audience hoping a full ban for the town would be put into effect at the meeting.

It was noted the next plan commission meeting is Sept. 15.

In other discussion, Winters noted the consulting firm handling Culver's comprehensive plan have published a draft of the plan, but that most commission members have not yet had a chance to read it. Berger suggested a comprehensive plan steering committee meeting be held to discuss the plan and its goals.

During his building commissioner's report, Mason said two properties on Obispo Street have been condemned. A property owner on Main Street with a hole in the roof of the house there has agreed to comply with requirements to take care of the problem, he added.

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